Christianity

Southern Baptist leaders tout unity amid rift that could cost church millions

Russell Moore on "Fox and Friends."

Russell Moore on "Fox and Friends."

A show of unity this week by leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) puts a happy, but perhaps temporary, face on a struggle over the direction of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

The head of the 15-million-member evangelical denomination’s public policy arm, Russell Moore, has criticized President Trump and – most provocatively – SBC leaders who openly support him.

Moore, who heads the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Frank Page, president of the SBC’s executive committee, made peace at a Monday meeting in Nashville to tamp down rumors of a split between the two and speculation that the tie that binds the massive denomination together is fraying.

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While those ties may not be fraying, they have been strained. Moore has accused evangelical leaders who supported Trump of “normalizing an awful candidate,” according to published reports. Further, Moore said that Southern Baptist leaders who attended a meeting at Trump Tower last year had “drunk the Kool-Aid.”

Baptist love for liberty often creates the sounds of war when closer examination reveals a fireworks display. The issues are serious, but the focus of our convention of churches on getting the saving gospel of Christ to every human on the earth prevails over our temporary squabbles.

- Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Trump shot back at Moore through a tweet that called the 45-year-old “a nasty guy with no heart.”

In the run-up to the meeting, Page had been quoted in a Washington Post story as saying that a staggering number of churches were threatening to withhold contributions from the 172-year-old denomination’s Cooperative Program, which is the venue for congregations to support the national group’s ministries. He also said he might ask Moore for “a change in his status.”

But after Monday’s meeting, Page and Moore issued a joint statement pledging to work together to “deepen connections with all Southern Baptists.”

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While unquestionably orthodox in his Baptist theology, Moore has discomfited many white evangelicals, not just by his anti-Trump comments but also his opposition to displays of the Confederate flag and vocal advocacy for racial justice. Many churches in the SBC, most of whose parishioners are white, are in the southern United States.

Congregations threatening to withhold money carry significant financial heft. Jack Graham, past SBC president and pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church, a Dallas-area mega church, has threatened to escrow contributions to the SBC up to $1 million

Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the wealthy and influential First Baptist Church in Dallas and a Fox News contributor, told Fox News that it’s highly possible his church will also stop contributing to denominational headquarters.

“Our church will always financially support the Cooperative Program of the Southern Baptist Convention,” Jeffress said. “However, the controversy over Russell Moore and the [Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission] is going to be a catalyst for many churches to reassess how they can most effectively support the denomination, which may involve a reallocation of funds.”

Moore’s comments and responses to public policy issues highlights the way the SBC is changing. Its membership is increasingly Hispanic and black. Further, many members are young and those young members do not feel the loyalty to the Republican party that their parents did.

These changes take place as the United States becomes increasingly secular and, in the opinion of many evangelicals and traditional Roman Catholics, increasingly hostile to religion in general.

As the struggle for the SBC’s direction and public posture has become public, a number of church leaders are urging their peers to look past Moore and his provocative leadership style and instead devote their energy and efforts on unity. Other Southern Baptist leaders said it was critical for the churches to heal their differences.

“Baptist love for liberty often creates the sounds of war when closer examination reveals a fireworks display,” Paige Patterson, president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, told Fox News. “The issues are serious, but the focus of our convention of churches on getting the saving gospel of Christ to every human on the earth prevails over our temporary squabbles.” 

Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.